Whenever I am distracted or tired or not focused, and I write the date, the year I write is 1968. I’ve asked around, and a lot of people my age do the same thing. And that’s because everything - everything - happened in 1968, especially if you are American: Martin Luther King was shot and Bobby Kennedy was shot and there were race riots all through the year and major things happening with the war in Vietnam and the riots at Democratic Convention in Chicago and the first big women’s liberation protest. But throughout the world it was also a period of great events, protests, social change… not to mention a global pandemic that killed between 1-4 million people. We would wake up each morning with a sense of expectation that something would happen… not necessarily something bad, but something. It was a year of anxiety and ecstasy. And it had some great music! So it is hailed as a watershed year. I bring this up because 2020 is already being compared to 1968, and it’s only halfway over! So far we’ve had an impeachment, a pandemic, civic unrest and uncertainty in Hong Kong, unknown economic impact globally, wildfires in Australia, Brexit, Black Lives Matter protests all over the world, and I’m leaving stuff out! So I thought tonight I might give some thoughts from the child of one watershed year to the children of another.
A natural watershed is a place that consolidates water runoff. The water exists in rivulets and stormwater and even underground streams, but finally joins together to make a river or network of rivers or a lake. But the word “watershed” also refers to a parting or change in direction of a river. I like both descriptions when they are applied to the current idiom: This is both a time when the murmurings and worries and thoughts of many are coming together to create a raging river and at the same time may signal a change in that river’s direction.
So… a couple of points about graduating in a watershed year. First, understand that the values and lessons and developed skills of this year will be seared into your soul. There may be a fervency to your passion that exceeds the mere agreement of those who are teenagers in less turbulent years. Last year at graduation I mentioned that life’s new requirements would include flexibility, agility, perseverance, and an acceptance of the many iterations of newness that would cross your paths. I really hadn’t expected that they would all be required in extreme measures within the year! And let’s face it, you do have bragging rights. When your kids or your younger colleagues complain about tough times, you’ll always be able to nod sagely and say, “You should have been here in 2020!”
Second, you will be leading some seismic shifts. There just are some times when progress moves more quickly, jumping ahead or orienting everyone to issues that were not salient before. For example, we at THS have talked about the changing future and evolution of education for many years, and we are certainly not the only ones. Progressive educators meet, plan, talk, discuss, imagine -- and then along comes a Pandemic and suddenly everyone is forced to examine what education might be and to imagine it differently or question what is really meant by the term “education” in the first place. People have discussed the future of work, the impact of technology, the importance of personal choice and meaning in work, the rise of entrepreneurship and many great voices have added to that discussion, but suddenly we have hundreds of millions of people with their livelihoods in danger. So we are at a point where everyone will join in creating new approaches to work (and to finding personal meaning within work) because they will have to - and also because they now realize that they can, having now tried some things they’d never tried before. In similar ways we are seeing massive and unified understanding of the need to rethink health care, social justice, racial inequities, global warming, even the meaning and purpose of government, just to name a few. It’s important to note that these are not areas that were not being addressed before… they were. But 2020 has created a spotlight and an urgency that has focused everyone’s attention. Inertia makes it easy to stay as we are, because change is hard. It took this year to make everyone realize that even if we wanted to stay as we are, we can’t. And we really didn’t want to. So now that we are all paying attention, it will be you who lead that change.
Imagine a great big convention center packed with people, and they’re all fussin’ and discussin’ and lots of good ideas are coming forth, and some voices are louder than others and some are being shouted down, and progress is being made in a few corners but it’s hard to notice in the din. Every once in awhile you hear sounds of celebration or dismay. Suddenly, a huge clarion bell called 2020 rings out and there is complete silence. Everybody is ready to listen. And guess what? It’s your turn to speak.
Robert Macfarlane said: “We need a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape into ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, recline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographics, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.”
There is no doubt that this is a bit scary, especially for those of us who are older. You are entering what will literally be a new world, not only like most kids who are going away to the new world of college, but in a new reality that is profoundly changed and in some ways unrecognizable and in many ways unpredictable. But I have just watched all of you navigate a year of great personal and educational challenges with incredible dexterity and grace, so I know that you will join this new river with excitement, you will help direct it in ways we cannot even yet imagine, and you will build and pilot ships we cannot dream of to carry people on that river. This is the most exciting time imaginable to be going away to college and then to be shaping your many careers. There is so much to be done and so many people suddenly joining to do it, and thinking innovatively as so many of you do will be greeted as necessary not disruptive. Remember -- in 1969 we walked on the moon.
Oh - and just be aware that you may be writing 2020 as the date when you are distracted for the next 50 years or so.
I take this moment to welcome you all to adulthood. I can’t wait to see what you create.